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I was rather surprised to discover that we have yet to share a single soundtrack from one of my favorite Italian composers, Pino Donaggio. Despite posting an insane amount of horror soundtracks for both the Halloween Countdown and our Nightmare Before Christmas Event, and even running with an Italian horror theme for a while, we somehow managed to avoid making a single post dedicated to his work. Pino Donaggio has composed scores for a number of horror movies, although he is best known for composing the scores to "Carrie" and "The Howling". While his scores to both of those films are great, and the films are equally impressive, my favorite output from Donaggio happens to be his soundtrack for the low-budget horror film "Piranha". This soundtrack was released on vinyl by the Varèse Sarabande label in 1978, the same year as the film, and has long been out of print. Varèse Sarabande released a limited edition CD a few years ago, with only 1,000 copies being produced, but it sold out in less than three days.
Piranha remains one of my favorite b-movie horror films of all time. It was the eighth film released by New World Pictures, a studio owned and operated by legendary b-movie director Roger Corman. Piranha was an attempt to cash in on the success of Stephen Spielberg's Jaws, which inspired a slew of films in the late '70s and early '80s depicting overgrown man-eating sea creatures. However, a number of talented individuals involved in the production of this movie enabled it to stand out in its own right, and the result was more of an homage to Jaws than a cheap knock-off. The plot revolves around an insurance investigator, Maggie, and her guide, Paul, who are searching for a missing teenage couple last spotted near Lost River Lake. The two unwittingly release a massive school of killer piranha from an abandoned military compound's fish hatchery after Maggie drains the hatchery's water to search for the couple's bodies. The piranha released by Maggie have been genetically engineered by the military to survive in environments normally unsuitable to them, intended to be used as a living weapon against the Vietnamese. However, the end of the war resulted in the hatchery being abandoned by the military, with only the lead scientist staying behind to monitor the piranha. The killer fish proceed to rapidly swim down river, devouring all those unfortunate enough to cross their path. Maggie and Paul race to warn the town's inhabitants and prevent more deaths, yet they are opposed by a group of military officers who attempt to prevent the two from alerting the media.
Piranha was director Joe Dante's second feature-length film. He would later go on to direct several cult favorites, such as Gremlins, The Burbs, and Innerspace. Despite being restricted by such a small budget, Dante managed to create a very enjoyable film. I just watched the film yesterday, and I was surprised at how well it has held up over the years. There were a few cringe-worthy moments, but I believe the positive aspects of the film far outweigh the negative. There is a fair bit of tongue-in-cheek black humor injected throughout, signaling the fact that this movie doesn't take itself too seriously, yet it still manages to deliver where it counts. The actors, which are the fatal flaw in many b-movies, were surprisingly convincing and genuine in their delivery. The fact that the dialogue was well-written also played to their advantage. While the special effects appear noticeably dated in certain parts of the movie, Dante's choreographic skill enabled him to make the most with what he had to work with. The attacks are often depicted in murky underwater scenes, as the piranhas thrash about in a frenzied state, filling the murky water with blood guts. This only allows the viewer to be able to see brief glimpses of the piranha, sparing the viewer from the eyesore of what was surely a low-budget and cheap looking piranha prop.
Fortunately, the film also greatly benefited from composer Pino Donaggio's brilliant score. His atmospherical score perfectly accompanies the on-screen action, bringing an added dimension of emotional depth to many of the scenes, rather than simply serving as easily dismissible background music. Donaggio employs bold, frantic cues to accompany the frenzied attack sequences, while creating an atmosphere of hopelessness and despair for the aftermath of such attacks, as "Nightmare In The Sun / Betsy's Death" perfectly illustrates. There are a few upbeat numbers on this soundtrack, but the overwhelming majority of the tracks are ominous and menacing in tone, making this soundtrack an obvious choice for our ongoing Nightmare Before Christmas theme. Piranha is one of a handful of films directed by Dante that does not feature a score from the legendary and prolific composer, Jerry Goldsmith, whom Dante met in 1983 while doing directorial work for "Twilight Zone: The Movie." From that point on Goldsmith would be Dante's regular composer of choice. However, Donaggio would go on to compose one more amazing score for Dante before Goldsmith entered the picture. In 1981 he composed the score to the legendary werewolf horror film, "The Howling", which will be the subject of my next post.
Year of Release: 1978 Label: Varèse Sarabande Catalog #: STV 81126 Genre: Soundtrack/Score, Horror, Contemporary Classical Original Format: Vinyl LP Digital Format: MP3 Bitrate: 320kbps
Track List: A1. No Trespassing A2. Main Title A3. Aquarina / Homonocules A4. Piranha Among Us A5. Lost River Theme A6. Fatal Rescue A7. Summer Dreams A8. Dr. Hoak A9. Nightmare In The Sun / Betsy's Death B1. Empty Tubes / Poor Jack B2. Operation Razorteeth B3. Escape In The Night B4. Premonition / Beyond The Darkness B5. Restricted Area B6. End Title B7. Yes, We Have Piranhas